Is hair dye safe? Answers to common questions

The decision to change your hair color may be a hard one — and not just if you’re having a hard time choosing the right color!

Some studies have linked hair dyes with a higher risk of certain cancers, while other studies have not found this link. Most hair dyes also don’t have to go through safety testing that other cosmetic color additives do before hitting store shelves, so people are often on their own trying to figure out whether hair dyes are safe.

hair-dye-color-Helga Weber

The FDA notes that cosmetic makers (including hair color manufacturers) have stopped using things known to cause cancer in animals — for example, 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine (4MMPD) or 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine sulfate (4MMPD sulfate) are no longer used. But chemicals made almost the same way have replaced some of the cancer-causing compounds, and some experts feel that these newer ingredients aren’t very different from the things they’re replacing.

Experts suggest that you may reduce your risk of cancer by using less hair dye over time. You may also reduce your risk by not coloring your hair until it starts to go gray.

What precautions should you take when you dye your hair?

Here are some more safety tips to keep in mind when coloring your hair:

The more you know…

Hair dye: Something to color your hair.

Hair die: When your hair dies.*

Hair dyeing: Coloring your hair.

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Hair dying: The death of hair.*

Hair colorant: Something to color your hair.

Hair color: The color of your hair (adj).

Hair color: Something to color your hair (noun).

* Any hair that you can color is already dead. Sorry.

  • Start by reading and carefully following the directions in the hair dye package.
  • Always wear gloves when applying hair dye.
  • Be sure to do a patch test for allergic reactions before applying the dye to your hair. Almost all hair dye products include instructions for doing a patch test, and it’s important to do this each time you dye your hair. (Your hairdresser should also do the patch test before dyeing your hair.) To test, put a dab of hair dye behind your ear, and don’t wash it off for two days. If you don’t have any signs of allergic reaction, such as itching, burning, or redness at the test spot, you can be somewhat sure that you won’t have a reaction to the dye applied to your hair. If you do react to the patch test, do the same test with different brands or colors until you find one to which you’re not allergic.
  • Don’t leave the dye on your head any longer than needed.
  • Rinse your scalp thoroughly with water after use.
  • Never dye your eyebrows or eyelashes. An allergic reaction to dye could cause swelling or increase risk of infection in the eye area. This can harm the eye and even cause blindness. Spilling dye into the eye by accident could also cause permanent damage. FDA bans the use of hair dyes for eyelash and eyebrow tinting or dyeing even in beauty salons.
  • Never mix different hair dye products. You might inadvertently create a toxic chemical combination.
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Are lead acetates safe in hair dyes?

Lead acetate is used as a color additive in “progressive” hair dye products. These products are put on over a period of time to produce a gradual coloring effect. You can safely use these products if you follow the directions carefully.

This warning statement must appear on the product labels of lead acetate hair dyes: “Caution: Contains lead acetate. For external use only. Keep this product out of children’s reach. Do not use on cut or abraded scalp. If skin irritation develops, discontinue use. Do not use to color mustaches, eyelashes, eyebrows, or hair on parts of the body other than the scalp. Do not get in eyes. Follow instructions carefully and wash hands thoroughly after use.”

Is it safe to dye your hair when you’re pregnant?

We don’t know much about the safety of hair dyes during pregnancy. It’s likely that when you apply hair colorant, only a small amount is absorbed into your system, so very little chemicals, if any, would be able to get to your baby. In the few animal and human studies that have been done, no changes were seen in the developing baby. You might want to wait until after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy have passed before coloring your hair.

Of course, be sure to talk to your pregnancy healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.

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